Fundraising and the arts have always had a powerful partnership, but sometimes the magic of that connection resonates beyond expectation. Such was the case when the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF) stumbled across hip-hop artist, Semme.
Now in their 50th year, the foundation was exploring alternative ways to spread the word about their mission, as well as looking at new fundraising avenues. Like so many, AARBF’s usual practice of deep connection to donors at live events has been derailed by the lockdown. Executive Director Jennifer Radics-Johnson emphasized the importance of community within the foundation and burn community at large, sharing, “We educate all ages and work with the fire service to help Californians learn about how to be fire- and burn-safe. It's a privilege to be part of a burn survivor’s journey from the time of injury to wherever life may take them.”
The roots of AARBF are in the “stop, drop and roll” technique that saved David Ruch, brother of the foundation’s namesake, Alisa Ann Ruch, from the same tragic fire from which she perished. David was pushed to the ground and rolled out, and “stop, drop and roll” has continued as a prevention tagline the foundation has helped popularize through school and community fire safety education programs since the early 1970s. The message and technique are now known globally.
While trying to reimagine ways to engage their community virtually, a team member suggested that they explore the TikTok platform––and perhaps launch a dance challenge using “stop, drop and roll” to help with promotion. “Our main goal has always been to maintain our sense of community, even though we physically couldn't be together,” says Radics-Johnson. Continuing the foundation’s support of burn survivors, while shifting to a virtual community, has already been effective with their programs, including virtual trips to the zoo, summer camp (for over 130 children), and ongoing support groups. The goal for TikTok was to spread the word in a new, fresh way that would appeal to an expanded demographic.
As they searched for themes and ideas, Semme’s page appeared, along with his song “Do Dat (TikTok Resume),” which incorporates the phrase “stop, drop and roll.” Recognizing that the challenges faced by Semme and others within the albino community likely entailed similarities to those within the burn community––in terms of navigating frequent judgment based on their appearance––AARBF reached out to propose a partnership to have “Do Dat” connected to the lifesaving “stop, drop and roll” technique.
Semme had created the song to inspire an easy dance for anyone and everyone to replicate, get involved in, and help to spread some fun during the lockdown. Having struggled with his own insecurities and lack of confidence in the past, he wanted to create something where people who felt the same could push through their fears and introduce themselves in a 15-30 second video. “I picked a beat and helped create a sound that was popular at the time,” says Semme. “It ended up taking off and I’m really thankful.”
As a member of the albino community and someone who has dealt with bullying for much of his life, Semme (born Semmuel Jenkins) is all too familiar with how it feels to be different and to get shunned––something many AARBF burn survivors can relate to––and he was thrilled to learn that his lyrics could help promote fire safety education. A fierce advocate of spreading awareness and understanding for people facing various challenges, Albino Semme (his online moniker) was quick to jump in with shoutout videos to lend support to AARBF, and he has continued to spread the word to his followers. “I was really excited when I realized this could potentially help people,” he shared. “That’s what I’m all about.”
When discussions started between Semme and AARBF in late November 2020, the “Do Dat (TikTok Resume)” video had only reached a few thousand people, who then made replica challenge videos. The thought was that the challenge might reach about 10,000 people at best. Within a few weeks, however, copycat videos were at over 30,000 and, by the end of 2020, views and engagement had reached over a million. Momentum picked up, with entire families getting involved and influencer careers taking off. “I had an influencer telling me that the dancing in their video took them three or four days to learn,” Semme explains. “Another told me they ended up with over 3 million followers from their one video going viral. They are now getting branding deals and it has changed their whole life. It’s really cool to see how 15 seconds can contribute to the world.” The challenge currently has over two million videos involved, and is still growing.
The importance of community––especially for those facing the added pressure of standing out in public––cannot be understated. “Community means everything. You can’t do it alone,” admits Semme. “You can make the decision, but after the decision is made, you typically need help. The biggest reason I want to be an entertainer (is) to help inspire others and have them believe in themselves. That’s more compensation than any amount of money.”
While TikTok is not a platform a non-profit might have seriously considered before––and Semme had never heard of AARBF––the symbiotic match could not have been more ideal.
For more information about the Alisa Ann Burn Foundation (AARBF) and the lead-up to their 50th Anniversary year celebrations, please see: aarbf.org/50th-anniversary
Information about Semme and his music can be found at iamsemme.com, his TikTok page at vm.tiktok.com/ZMehoSpHT, and the video on youtube.com